The tradition of Sky burials, also known as “Celestial burials,” is a unique practice deeply intertwined with Tibetan culture. While it might seem unusual to some, its values and philosophy reveal a surprisingly beautiful and virtuous aspect. This ancient custom involves offering the deceased’s body to the sacred vultures, honoring nature and embracing the belief in reincarnation and transmigration.
A Sacred Ceremony of Nature’s Cycle
A Sky burial is the act of respectfully leaving a corpse exposed to the elements of nature. The Burial Master, responsible for precise preparations, cuts the body into pieces and grinds the bones. The prepared corpse is then placed in an open site, serving as a final honorable offering to the earth and a meal for the vultures. These burials are often conducted in high elevation locations, as vultures are the desired creatures to be fed. The scarcity of ground space and the frozen ground in Tibet have made Sky burials the most common way of disposing of the deceased.
The Tibetan Belief
Tibetan beliefs surrounding death and burials are rooted in Buddhist principles of reincarnation and transmigration. Upon death, the soul departs from the body, and the Sky burial represents an act of compassion, providing the deceased body, which no longer serves a purpose, as a final act of charity to the sacred vultures.
Tibetans view death as a transformation rather than an ending, leading them to face death with serenity and calmness. They believe that leaving no trace of their earthly existence, including their physical bodies, facilitates a smooth transmigration. If the vultures do not devour the offered corpse, it is considered a sign of bad luck or unfulfilled religious rites, leading to alternative animals like wild dogs being brought in to fulfill the sacred ritual.
The Process and Preparation of the Body
After a person’s passing, their body is wrapped in white cloth and kept in a corner of the house for three to five days. Monks or lamas read scriptures aloud during this period to release the soul from purgatory. Maintaining a peaceful home environment aids the soul’s smooth passage and ascension to the heavens. The family then selects a day for the Sky burial ceremony.
Pamela Logan, an expert on Tibetan culture, explains that during the process, the body is not touched for three days, except possibly at the crown of the head, as the consciousness exits. Lamas guide the spirit through prayers lasting seven weeks, leading the person through intermediate states before rebirth, known as the bardo.
Ancient Origins and Uncertain Records
While Sky burials are believed to have existed for over 11,000 years, evidence from excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey only offers indirect support. The true origins of the practice in Tibet remain unclear, as early Tibetan works do not provide substantial evidence. European traveler Friar Odoric’s account from the 14th century is one of the earliest records available. Dan Martin suggests that further research in Tibetan language sources may shed light on the custom’s earlier origins.
The tradition of Sky burials reflects the profound respect for nature and the cycle of life and death in Tibetan culture. It exemplifies the belief in reincarnation and compassionately nourishes the sacred vultures while minimizing the impact on other living creatures. Although its precise origins remain shrouded in mystery, the practice endures as a spiritual and cultural testament to the beauty and virtue of embracing nature’s cycle.
What is a Sky burial?
A Sky burial is a Tibetan funerary practice where the deceased’s body is exposed to the elements and offered as food to vultures.
Why do Tibetans choose Sky burials?
Tibetans believe in reincarnation and view death as a transformation, making Sky burials a way to honor nature and facilitate transmigration.
Are Sky burials considered unusual in Tibetan culture?
While it might seem alarming to some, Sky burials are deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and hold significant spiritual meaning.
What happens during the Sky burial ceremony?
The Burial Master prepares the body by cutting it into pieces, and then it is left in an open site for vultures to consume.
What if the vultures do not consume the body?
It is considered a sign of bad luck or unfulfilled religious rites, and alternative animals might be brought to fulfill the sacred ritual.